Marriage counselor and author Terry Real has concluded that unbridled self-expression is a “losing strategy” for communication within a marriage. The more common name for this type of talking is venting. Venting or as it is seen by your partner, raging, may have value in other relationships he says, but when it comes to your spouse, cool it. Some couples defend unbridled expression as an important component of their honest and open relationship. Then they describe in detail how awful their partner has behaved while ignoring how defensive they become. Even if the venting partner happens to be correct in their assessment of their partner’s failings (although they are often wrong), the act of venting pushes them apart and drifts them further away from peace and solutions.
DON’T SPANK YOUR MARRIAGE
Raging and venting are really just adult temper tantrums that need to be controlled and eradicated. In the same way “spanking” has been debunked as effective discipline with children, so too is losing your temper and demanding change from a spouse. I meet couples who consider spanking to be an abusive horror but then turn to their spouse and curse them with contempt.
The bottom line is, don’t lose control of your temper, don’t spank your children, and don’t spank your marriage either. It is ineffective and leads to unintended consequences, such as cold distance, compliant fear, and infidelity. If you think you are about to “lose” your temper, find it, and take it out of the room to cool it down.
VENTING LEADS TO MORE VENTING
Our brains are programmed to learn through practice and repetition. So if you “practice” venting, you will simply get better at it and become more likely to rely on it. If you practice cooling down your anger with timeouts and deep breaths, you will get better at not being angry and then you can begin to practice calm assertiveness. There are better ways to get your way and influence your partner than force and fear.
Modern neuroscience has shown that raging and venting do not provide psychological relief or catharsis. What we used to think of as “blowing off steam” turns out to be a way to create more and hotter steam. Raging and venting simply lead to more raging and venting as your brain adapts to improve at the skill you are practicing. If you are a person who vents to feel better, you are paddling upstream.
VENTING IS INEFFECTIVE
The other problem with raging is that it is ineffective as a strategy to promote change. Try to think of a time when your rage has ever created lasting change. You may get temporary change but you will always get a side order of either rebellion or resigned martyrdom in the long run. Neither of which look like or feel like love.
POWER AND RELATIONSHIPS
Power is always a currency within a marriage. If you don’t feel this to be true, that is either because you are a man or because your marital power dynamics happen to be in equilibrium. These power struggles are normal and natural, arising from our primitive cave person's urge to battle over finite resources like food, water, and mates.
TIME, MONEY, AND INTIMACY
In marriage these resources are time, money, and intimacy. If you want to witness power at work in your relationship, simply mention to your partner that you want to quit your job, move to a new city, or have a child. You just might get to meet the cave person you are living with. Power and control sit underneath every choice in a marriage: every vacation, every dinner out, and even every conversation.
POWER AND UNBRIDLED SELF EXPRESSION
It is because of these complex power dynamics that venting fails in marriages. Think about your interactions with other people in your life that wield power over you: your boss, a police officer etc. How does unbridled self-expression work in those situations? When you add venting to power, boom, you get escalation and danger. The same thing happens in your relationship. Spouses have a great deal of power over each other. They may not show it often but they have the power to wound, to leave, and to ruin. Deep down we know that and thus venting fails.
TREAT YOUR SPOUSE LIKE A COP
Try using the tone of voice and word choice that you would use with a police officer or your boss when you are trying to influence your spouse. This strategy won’t necessarily create change or fix your relationship but it is a start. Just like saying “Officer, I would prefer to not get this ticket because I feel that it is unfair” may fail to save you money, it has a better chance to influence then complaining or yelling. Conveying respect and understanding of your partner’s power over you and you over them in communication is the first and most important step to having effective and peaceful communication.